Another day, another Debut Author to add to your growing TBR – which is what we all like best (don’t lie)! Welcome to my interview with Tom Crosshill, whose debut YA novel The Cat King of Havana releases in September (noooooooo!) through Katherine Tegen Books, and promises to be a delightfully witty contemporary read, and today we chat cats, travel and so much more.
First, a little bit about The Cat King of Havana – don’t forget to check out the giveaway at the bottom of page where you can win an ARC of The Cat King! (US/CAN only).
Rick Gutierrez is . . . the Cat King of Havana! A cat-video tycoon turned salsa-dancer extraordinaire, he’ll take Cuba by storm, romance the girl of his dreams, and ignite a lolcat revolution!
At least that’s the plan.
It all starts when his girlfriend dumps Rick on his sixteenth birthday for uploading cat videos from his bedroom when he should be out experiencing the real world. Known as “That Cat Guy” at school, Rick isn’t cool and he knows it. He realizes it’s time for a change.
Rick decides joining a salsa class is the answer . . . because of a girl, of course. Ana Cabrera is smart, friendly, and smooth on the dance floor. Rick might be half-Cuban, but he dances like a drunk hippo. Desperate to impress Ana, he invites her to spend the summer in Havana. The official reason: learning to dance. The hidden agenda: romance under the palm trees.
Except Cuba isn’t all sun, salsa, and music. There’s a darker side to the island. As Rick and Ana meet his family and investigate the reason why his mother left Cuba decades ago, they learn that politics isn’t just something that happens to other people. And when they find romance, it’s got sharp edges.
Q. As someone who has grown up on and written science fiction and fantasy, where did the idea for The Cat King of Havana come from?
What draws me to science fiction & fantasy is the sense of unending possibility. Turn the page and there’s always something new and colorful and exciting to discover.
The thing is, the real world is like that too. There is so much to explore! New lands, new people, new forms of art. It’s why I love traveling and why I love learning new skills.
In the past, I’ve devoted thousands of happy hours to studying the piano, getting a black belt in aikido, learning to act and direct, and other pursuits. A few years ago, on a chance trip to Cuba, I stumbled (quite literally) into salsa dancing. I’ve been obsessed ever since.
When I’m obsessed, I write.
Rick Gutierrez, the protagonist of The Cat King of Havana, is a nerdy cat video tycoon who falls in love with a girl — and, in the same instant, falls in love with salsa. The problem is, he sucks at dancing — he really, really sucks.
It takes a lot of guts and stubbornness to learn a partner dance when dancing with you makes people wince. It takes a lot of guts and stubbornness to learn anything when everyone tells you that you suck.
I know — I’ve lived it. But I’ve also lived through it. In The Cat King of Havana, I wanted to explore this challenging, mortifying, and yet satisfying struggle.
Alaya Dawn Johnson, the Norton Award-winning author of The Summer Prince, captured it best. She said my book deals with “[…]the mortification of being a raw beginner at something you already know you love and already doubt you’ll ever be any good at; the unexpected peace of trying as hard as you can and still not getting what you want (which maybe never mattered anyway)”.
(Then there’s also cat videos, the Cuban revolution, and romance under the palm trees).
Q. Was writing The Cat King of Havana different in any way from writing your other work? What was the process like?
Every book is different. It feels like you’re learning to write from scratch. But The Cat King of Havana was a lot of fun to work on — because I was determined to make the book fun. For most scenes in the book, the first thing I looked for was the humor — me the writer trying to make me the reader chuckle.
On the flipside, days when I wasn’t feeling funny could be hell. There are few things as demoralizing as trying to be funny.
Q.Following on from the above question, what was the most challenging aspect of writing a young adult contemporary novel?
For The Cat King of Havana, research was a particular challenge.
I write these words in Havana, where I’m spending a year studying dance at the Instituto Superior de Arte. I wrote the book while in the US and Europe, however. Cuba is a land just now discovering the internet. The writer’s best friend — Google — was often useless in the face of my queries. Instead, I had to do research the old-fashioned way.
The book’s protagonist Rick Gutierrez explores his mother’s past as a Cuban exile — she left the island on the notorious Mariel boatlift. To accurately portray Rick’s investigation, I did a lot of reading at various libraries. I also drew on the aid of many Cubans — dancers, writers, and other friends — for personal histories, local detail, and help with the finer nuances of Cuban Spanish.
In the end, though, this kind of thorough research proved very satisfying. It grounded the whole writing process — it let me create something real out of words and imagination.
Q.Ricky goes to Cuba and learns how to salsa to impress a girl. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to impress someone?
I suspect that a great deal of what I’ve achieved in life I’ve done with the motive — conscious or not — of impressing a girl. Sometimes I think that, were romance eliminated, the progress of humanity would grind to a standstill. Whether it’s getting in shape, learning to defend yourself, making a lot of money, or getting your salsa on, impressing that special someone is strong motivation.
Craziest thing, though? I once borrowed a friend’s bulky pro camera, chose a fake name, and talked my way into a glitzy Hamptons socialite party. It’s amazing how friendly models and actors become when they think you work for a fashion magazine. (The party was a snore, though, and the girls’ interest evaporated as soon as the camera went away. . . lesson learned).
Q. I love to travel, and I especially love it when books take me to places I’ve never been before. What was it about Cuba that led you to set a book there?
Cuba is an island that seems a utopia one day, a dystopia the next, and somewhere in the middle on your average Tuesday. Between various trips I’ve spent close to a year in Havana, not just dancing salsa and listening to fantastic music, but also riding packed buses, standing in long lines for mundane errands, and enjoying leisurely strolls along the Malecón. I love the island and I have been exasperated by it, and I keep coming back.
At the time when I wrote this book, I wanted to go back to Cuba really badly, but I couldn’t afford to. In a way, I wrote The Cat King of Havana so I could visit the island without spending a dime. Now my readers can as well!
Q. Did you get to watch a lot of cat videos and claim it as research? Any particular favourites we should know about?
Yes — I’m very thorough about research that way. Writing is hard work and I take it seriously. If watch cat videos I must, then watch cat videos I shall.
I was also fortunate to get the advice and input of Jack Shepherd, the Editorial Director and cat video expert at BuzzFeed.
Q. What are five things that you never write without?
Curiosity, patience, stubbornness, faith, and cookies.
Q. What are three words you’d use to describe The Cat King of Havana?
Jetpack kitten bonanza!
Thanks for answering my questions Tom! Aside from me now spending too much time on cat video after cat video, I can’t wait to read The Cat King of Havana, if not for Cuba itself!
Tom Crosshill’s fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award (thrice) as well as the Latvian Annual Literature Award. His stories have appeared in venues such as Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed. In 2009, he won the Writers of the Future contest. After some years spent in Oregon and New York, he currently lives in his native Latvia. In the past, he has operated a nuclear reactor, translated books and worked in a zinc mine, among other things.
Tom’s young adult novel “The Cat King of Havana” is forthcoming from Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins) in 2016.
Loved this interview and want to get to know more about the Debut Authors of 2016? Check out the rest of the Bash here, and discover new favourite books! My list has grown exponentially this last month!